Speech Preparation #8: How to Practice Your Presentation
Have you heard this claim?
“Practicing makes me robotic. My speeches are better and more natural if I just work from my outline.”
This may be acceptable for scenarios where you don’t care about the result, but in all other cases, it’s hogwash.
The eighth in the Speech Preparation Series, this article provides practical ideas for maximizing the benefit from your practice time.
Why Practice? Does Practice Make Perfect?
Practicing your speech is essential, but I’d be foolish to suggest that practice alone will result in a “that was the best speech I’ve ever heard” response from your audience. For this, you need to master essential public speaking skills and build up experience doing so.
So, while practice you won’t necessarily make you perfect, you will reap significant benefits by practicing your speech at least a couple times:
- Discover awkward phrases and tongue-twisters that you did not notice when writing and editing. Speaking the words out loud exposes flaws that reading does not.
- Gauge your energy level. Does delivering this speech fire you up? Or are you bored with it?
- Gauge your timing. Once you get more experienced, you will learn how many words can fit in a 10-minute time slot. Until then, however, practicing the complete speech is the best way to know if you are under or over time.
- Reduce nervousness. Rehearsing even one time will improve your confidence in your material.
How to Rehearse Your Speech
You might practice for 60 hours. You might practice for 60 minutes. Either way, here are a few tips that will help you achieve maximum benefit from time spent rehearsing:
- Re-create the speech setting
Reading your speech at a desk (or from your computer screen) is not optimal unless you are preparing for a webcast. Try to duplicate the speech setting as much as you can.
- Practice in the room where you’ll be speaking, if you can.
- Stand up. You get more realistic voice projection.
- Rehearse with props and visual aids.
- Arrange an audience. Practicing with an audience is better than practicing without one… even if it is not your target audience.
- Consider what you will wear when your speech will be delivered. Will it add complications? Inhibit gestures or movement in any way?
- Take notes
Don’t hesitate to stop yourself in the middle of your rehearsal to jot down ideas as they come to you. Capture internal feelings immediately.
Try out different voices, gestures, or staging. This is especially important for your opening, conclusion, and any other key points. Give yourself confidence knowing that these lines will be delivered precisely as you intended.
- Time yourself
You can easily do this yourself, but it helps if someone else can time you. Insert planned pauses, and insert delays when you expect laughter or some other audience response. This may feel funny, but an accurate timing estimate will tell you if you need to do more editing.
- Use all that you learn to edit your speech and make it better.
Practicing your speech is good.
Practicing your speech with an audience is better.
Practicing your speech with someone who will give you honest feedback is best.
Practicing with an audience gives you valuable feedback:
- Is your humor drawing smiles and laughs or is it missing completely?
- Are you keeping the audience’s attention throughout?
- Are you receiving positive feedback in the form of nodding heads and smiles, or is a blank stare the most common expression?
After the rehearsal, actively solicit feedback. Make it clear that you want honest opinions about what could be improved. A dozen “Good speech!” comments may boost your ego, but it won’t boost the quality of your speech. To reap feedback that will improve your speech, ask open-ended questions like these:
- What was your favorite element in the speech? Why?
- What would you like to see improved?
- How can I improve my speech for next time?
This is far better than asking yes/no questions such as “Did you like it?”
Audio recordings help you gauge many delivery qualities, including speaking pace, pitch, and pauses.
- Assess which phrases sound “good” and which are awkward to listen to.
- Listen for um’s, ah’s, and other filler words.
- Notice if and when you stumbled.
- Time the overall speech (which would be easy to do with a watch), as well as individual segments of the speech (which you cannot do unless you stop and start numerous times).
I recently acquired the inexpensive Olympus WS-311M digital voice recorder for speech rehearsals. It is small (easy to carry) and has all the features I need for recording and playing back speeches. I encourage you to check it out along with competing products.
- As I’m writing this article, it is selling for $79 US [$49 off the list price]. That’s much less than I paid. That’s life.
A video recording of yourself speaking is an incredibly powerful tool. All of your habits — both good and bad — are captured. In addition to the audio assessments mentioned in the previous section, you can also learn:
- Are your gestures working?
- Are your gestures synchronized well with your words?
- Are your gestures varied, or are they monotonous?
- Are you smiling?
- Are you fidgeting, or displaying any other distracting mannerisms?
- Does your body sway from side to side?
- Eye contact is difficult to assess if the recording was made without a full audience, but you should be able to tell at least if your eyes are up, or down at your toes.
- If you are using visual aids, are your transitions smooth?
- If you are using a prop, was it handled smoothly?
I own an older model Sony DCR-TRV33 which records digitally on MiniDV tapes, but I’m sure any modern video camera is sufficient. The one luxury upgrade I wish I had is a lavalier microphone to capture better sound quality than the camera’s built-in microphone.
Practical Example — Face the Wind
I practiced my 2007 contest speech Face the Wind more than any other speech I’ve ever delivered. Here are the most valuable lessons I learned:
- The speech (in various iterations) was delivered formally four times at the club, area, division, and district speech contests.
- I rehearsed over 100 times. I rehearsed the speech in the car driving to/from work every day for about six weeks. I rehearsed in front of my wife and daughter. I rehearsed in the hotel room before the district contest. I rehearsed every chance I could.
- In the car, I obviously couldn’t do the gestures or staging, but I experimented heavily with different vocal variety, and then jotted down my observations when I reached my destination.
- After each of the first three contests, I sought feedback from audience members. In all cases, I received wonderful suggestions which made the speech better. Significant editing was performed after each contest.
- I sat down with a trusted fellow speaker and walked through the entire speech, line by line. This detailed review helped me perform some tough editing. It is easier to cut lines you love when someone looks you in the eye and tells you that they aren’t working.
Next in the Speech Preparation Series
You are ready to deliver your speech. Good luck! You will be awesome.
Immediately after the speech, the time is ripe for preparing for the next one. Productive self-critiquing is the focus of the next article in the Speech Preparation Series.